(Photo: Getty Images)
By Tim Wigmore
The sight of Sikandar Raza lofting Wanindu Hasaranga over long-off for six was among the most heartening in international cricket in all of 2017. For it sealed a remarkable 3-2 series victory for Zimbabwe in Sri Lanka.
Take a step back to see what a monumental achievement this was.
Not since January 2001, against New Zealand, had Zimbabwe toppled a Full Member away from home. They hadn’t beaten any Full Member in a home series since 2011 either.
Their cricket has been in turmoil, with many of their best players departing the country. Zimbabwe’s descent from their halcyon days in the late 1990s, when they defeated India and South Africa in the 1999 World Cup en route to finishing fifth in the tournament and won Test series against India and Pakistan, seemed insurmountable.
This series win hints that not all is lost. Heath Streak has instilled Zimbabwe with a new sense of purpose as coach. Perhaps even more importantly, in Faisal Hasnain, Zimbabwe have a highly regarded new chief executive, who was widely lauded during his stint at the International Cricket Council. For too long, Zimbabwe’s administration has not merely been a shambles; it has squandered the huge sums Zimbabwe receive from the ICC – around $11 million a year.
Under Hasnain, the hope is this will change. Better administration and a more attractive fixture list, combined with the continued talent that exists in the side, could yet convince some of Zimbabwe’s exiled players – Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis in county cricket, and perhaps even Sean Ervine – to consider returning or, at the very least, to dissuade men like Sean Williams from departing for England. Yes, this was just one ODI series victory, but it brings with it the promise of more: that Zimbabwe will cease their years of cricketing self-destruction.
The issue has long not been the quality of cricketer to emerge from Zimbabwe; instead, it has been that those players either depart or drift away from the game, weighed down by a lack of professionalism, and the sheer frustration of wages being paid late, sub-standard teammates and gaps of many months between competitive cricket. Recall what Taylor said after he left for Nottinghamshire in 2015, complaining about the dearth of Zimbabwe fixtures.
“I started getting mentally stale in Zimbabwe… If you are playing two Test matches a year and hardly any four-day cricket, you are always going to struggle,” he said.
English players have long lamented an excess of cricket, but a dearth of cricket, like Zimbabwe have suffered, is even more damaging. Last year, they even briefly lost their Test ranking because of not playing enough games: a microcosm of years of neglect. Cricket remains a small sport: even after the recent expansion, only 12 nations are permitted to play Test matches.
World cricket is a small community; each country is subtly better off if their opponents are stronger, because there is nothing more damaging for the international game than tedious, one-sided matches.
And ultimately seeing the same old teams playing bilateral fixtures against each other is just a bit dull.
So Zimbabwe’s historic achievement is to be lauded. It is proof of the continued quality of cricketers that exists in the country, in spite of the system. A stronger Zimbabwe means that the world game is more vibrant.
There is a wider story, too. Consider these results in 50-over international cricket since the start of June. Sri Lanka thrashed India in the Champions Trophy. Zimbabwe were defeated by both Scotland and the Netherlands (by 149 runs). Zimbabwe then toppled Sri Lanka in a series away.
Add it all together and the upshot is clear: there has never been more depth in world cricket. That is to be celebrated.
The shame is that this truth only makes the decision to contract the World Cup to ten teams all the more infuriating.